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Desert Island DVDs: The Big 8

So you find yourself, in true “Lost” fashion, stranded on a desert island in the vast sea, with nothing but your wits, your wiles and your good looks to keep you company. (OK, so it sounds a little nonsensical. Life doesn’t always have to make sense, does it? Willingly suspend your disbelief, people.) Since there’s no sunscreen, the sun’s going to dispatch that lovely complexion right quickly. With no one to parlay to your thrust in verbal jousting matches, the wit will be the first to go. And since there are no objects of lustful desire, the wiles, well, they aren’t worth a fig.

But wait! Suddenly you remember that you had the forethought to pack not one, not two but eight DVDs before the terrible stranding went down! Because you, die-hard movie lover, unlike 98 percent of the world’s population, know what’s really important: not sunscreen or non-perishable canned goods or a first aid kit or even a chummy volleyball named Wilson, but films. A world without water is palatable, but a world without movies?

That’s just crazy talk, is what that is.

Here’s my humble list of eight movie-films — divided into what I deem to be eight “essential” categories or groups — I’d require to keep me entertained on this neverending island venture:



Why: Despite the a-changin’ times Bob Dylan crooned about, strong female action heroes remain in short supply in the world of film. And so James Cameron’s tense-as-hell, gripping, action-dense thriller stands apart because of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), a fierce heroine who throws punches with the best of them yet retains that elusive quality — empathy — so little seen in action heroes. With Weaver’s iconic, brilliant performance, every viewing of “Aliens” feels like the first time.



Why come I picked this: You were expecting something a little “Holy Grail”-ier, perhaps? No offense to the Greatest Movie Ever Made, but there are times when British tomfoolery hits the spot and times when a desert island dweller wants to see that the world-at-large — poor people, with their dwindling IQs and those climbing Costco Law School prices — is far, far worse off than she is. Plus, there’s nothing like 10 seconds of “Ow, My Balls!” to clear those island doldrums riiiiight up.



Why: Back in his younger days, Marlon Brando wasn’t just a contender, he was THE contender — for coolest cat in any room, best method actor alive, name the category and he’d be fighting for a top spot in it. Though his career is studded with amazing and accomplished performances, his turn in “On the Waterfront” as one-time boxer Terry Malloy shows the actor in total command of his gifts. Pair that with a stellar ensemble cast (including heavyweights Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden) and it’s a knockout. Every time.



Why: Some people like their thrillers fast-n-furious, with lots of explosions and a juggernaut soundtrack that drowns out any hope of character interaction. Me, I like a slower burn that takes longer to take effect but packs a whallop when it does. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s beautiful film about 1984 Socialist East Germany, living under the thumb of the Stasi secret police, fits that bill and contains a stunning performance by the late Ulrich Mühe. This is a movie that will change your life.



Why: Cast aside all thoughts of the 85 remakes that followed John Carpenter’s low-budget 1978 classic that frightened viewers everywhere way, way down in their primal scare spots — they matter not. The original “Halloween” has no equal, for no other horror film has managed to create a character 1/16 as terrifying as Michael Myers, a masked force of evil that cannot be stopped. Carpenter outdid our imaginations in ways that still make us cry “uncle,” and that’s one hell of an achievement.



Why: Sometimes stories are compelling because the characters are extraordinary, or their deeds are, or their circumstances baffle or astound us. This is not the case with “The Station Agent,” an unassuming but enormously touching independent film about three wildly different people who, through nothing more than proximity and chance, stumble into one another’s company and discover they share one thing: loneliness. Never underestimate the power of simple human connection to touch the soul.


Romantic Comedy

Why: Love stories that don’t follow a traditional arch, that take bold risks and play about with our sense of time and space and memory, are rare, so when you find a good one the tendency is to hold on tight. Few romantic comedies manage to be as poignant, achingly bittersweet and unexpectedly funny as Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” an unconventional tale of two lovers that suggests, gently but clearly, that sometimes love does not conquer all or end in smiles and rainbows.



Why: Quentin Tarantino is a director who delights in messing with our heads, taking what we know of linear storytelling and throwing it in a Cuisinart; for him, originality is king. In that respect, “Inglourious Basterds” may well be his one true masterpiece, at once a tongue-in-cheek rewrite of World War II’s ending, a war film, an ensemble drama, a madcap comedy, a wild adventure. And now that I’ve seen it once, I can’t spend another second of my life without Christoph Waltz in it.


Complete Catalogue of Desert Island DVD Lists

  • Tara from 101 Goals in 1001 Days
  • Shawn from 7 Dollar Popcorn
  • Andrew from Andrew at the Cinema
  • Castor from Anomalous Material
  • Dylan from Blog Cabins
  • Nick from Cinema Romantico
  • Wynter from Cinemascream
  • Aiden from Cut the Crap Movie Reviews
  • The Mad Hatter from The Dark of the Matinee
  • Lady Hatter (posted on Hatter’s blog)
  • Sebastian from Detailed Criticisms
  • Elizabeth from Elizabethan Theatre
  • Andy From Fandango Groovers Movie Blog
  • Steve from The Film Cynics
  • Alex from Film Forager
  • Ripley from Four of Them
  • Ruth from FlixChatter
  • Marc from Go,See,Talk!
  • Jason from Invasion of The B-Movies
  • Caz from Lets Go To The Movies
  • Kai from The List
  • Olive from Movie News First
  • Darren from the mOvie blog
  • Travis from The Movie Encyclopedia
  • Heather from Movie Mobsters
  • Wendy from The Movie Viewing Girl
  • Paul from Paragraph Film Reviews
  • Phil from Phil on Film
  • Faith from Ramblings of a Recessionista
  • Nick from Random Ramblings of a Demented Doorknob
  • Ross & Ross from Ross v Ross
  • Meaghan from Wild Celtic
  • Mike from You Talking to Me?
  • No. 28: “The Station Agent” (2003)

    “It’s funny how people see me and treat me, since I’m really just a simple, boring person,” notes reclusive dwarf Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) in Thomas McCarthy’s oberservant indie “The Station Agent,” and you might be tempted to apply that observation to the movie. Resist the urge. Sure, “The Station Agent,” a little-seen Sundance darling anchored by three stellar performances, is a gently unassuming little movie where nothing much happens, but it packs an emotional punch that will leave you smarting for days.

    A few minutes into “The Station Agent,” this claim might seem far-fetched. Here, after all, is a movie that consists, primarily, of three characters doing one thing: talking. And talking. Eating and talking. Drinking. Drinking and talking. Then talking some more. To be fair, there’s very little action here, and zero melodrama. But McCarthy has a sly way of hiding real breakthroughs, real relevations, in conversations that sound like they’re full of offhand comments. Credit the actors — Dinklage, who’s quickly becoming a first-rate character actor, the always-faultless Patricia Clarkson and promising newcomer Bobby Cannavale — for creating characters so human, so intriguing, so affecting, that we’re drawn completely into their world.

    That world centers on Finbar, a train buff and unrepentant loner who drops out of life altogether when his sole friend dies and Finbar inherits a run-down train station in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey. He figures he’s done with people, done with the world, but he’s wrong. Enter Joe (Cannavale), a motormouth extrovert operating his sick father’s hotdog/coffee stand near the abandoned station. More than a bit intrigued by this curious hermit, Joe tries his hardest to draw Finbar out but has little luck until Olivia (Clarkson), a klutzy but well-meaning divorcee and artist still mourning her young son’s death, enters the picture. (The picture of distraction, she nearly runs him over with her car … twice.) After much fumbling, much stumbling and awkwardness, the trio strikes up a most improbable friendship that threatens to do away with their self-imposed exiles.

    Of course, that plot summary doesn’t begin to do justice to such a stirring film. Why? All the poignancy, all the layers of meaning and the little truths and the sock-you-in-the-gut insights, exist in these three understated but phenomenally effective performances. Dinklage, Clarkson and Cannavale aren’t the kind of actors to spoon-feed meaning: You have to do the work, do the digging and the excavating, but the emotional payoff is well worth all the effort. Take Dinklage, for example. He plays Finbar as tight-lipped and wary, the kind of man who’s drinking alone even when he’s in a bar jam-packed with people. He keeps people at arm’s length because he’s learned that his smalls size makes the world feel … entitled — entitled to pat his head and grin, entitled to talk down to him, entitled pry into the most private details of his life to feel out his “normalcy.” But behind that wariness there’s a fire in his eyes, a kind of tamped-down rage, that makes this hermit anything but boring. In fact, Dinklage is the opposite; he’s smoldering, ready to ignite when it’s least expected.

    Cannavale, on the other hand, has the most verbally expressive role — Bobby almost literally never stops talking — yet with tiny gestures he reveals a man whose world has shrunk to two people. Joe has become a drowning man reaching out to anyone and everyone to pull him out of solitude. (The scene where Finbar cruelly dismisses him will make your heart twist painfully.) The more Finbar pulls away, the tigher Joe wants to cling to him like a life preserver. He sees a chance for connection and won’t let it go. And Clarkson, a undervalued actress if ever there was one, is the queen of understated performances; this, if possible, is one of her best. Like Finbar, she is unsociable and lonely, but she reveals Olivia’s hidden pain through her distracted actions: She doesn’t answer her phone or return calls, she drives all over the road, she doesn’t refill medications, she forgets to eat or even buy groceries. These details are slight, but they sting as sharply as “The Station Agent” does.